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Manchester China Forum Executive Director features on the Belt and Road Advisory Podcast

20th July 2018

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Rhys Whalley

Rhys Whalley, Executive Director of the Manchester China Forum, was recently invited to speak on the Belt and Road Advisory Podcast. This podcast was established to educate listeners on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and is hosted by the Belt and Road Advisory, who offer professional advisory services on all matters concerning the initiative.

Rhys gave an overview of the Manchester China Forum, Greater Manchester’s strengthening relationship with China and outlined areas of opportunity for the GM-China relationship specifically along the Belt and Road. 

“For those who are not as familiar with Manchester, what does Manchester have to offer and what are some of Manchester’s current links with China?”

Manchester sits centrally within the UK, and is a city-region just shy of 3 million people. Manchester’s economy is growing at speed and its yearly economic output accounts for approximately 40% of the economic output for the northwest of England. There are 4 universities across the region, which house over 100,000 students, and the University of Manchester alone has over 5,000 mainland Chinese students studying there.

The University of Manchester also has strong research capabilities, and in 2015 when President Xi Jinping visited Manchester he went to the National Graphene Institute to see this cutting-edge research first-hand. There has been rapid growth in recent years in terms of research and development collaboration with key industry and academic partners in China.

The Manchester China Forum looks at a whole series of priorities, from improving connectivity into China through Manchester Airport to areas such as education and taught collaboration.  Growing commercial ties, attracting inwards investment into the region, and encouraging companies to go out and trade in China are other key priorities for the Manchester China Forum.

Manchester City Football Group for example is now 13% owned by a Chinese investor, and they’ve seen rapid growth particularly in terms of their partnerships with both Chinese government partners and industry partners.

“How do you prioritise which areas and which sectors you’re going to focus on when formulating a China strategy?”

As the city-region develops a more sophisticated understanding of its engagement with China, the nature of that engagement evolves in parallel. When Manchester China Forum was initiated 5 years ago there was an understanding that this was a long-term undertaking. Strategic partnerships across the region and the UK sit at the heart of our focus.

China is becoming a global leader in a number of areas, particularly in digital and tech innovation. Manchester China Forum is encouraging partners locally across the region to increasingly look to China for inspiration and look to collaborate with key players in market.

 The mayor for Greater Manchester has bold ambitions to become a greener and more digitally connected city. China has seen tremendous progress in these areas, so it creates significant opportunities for cities like Manchester to engage in long term partnerships with leading industry and academic players from China.

“The Northern Powerhouse was the only developed market initiative that president Xi mentioned during his BRI summit speech in May 2017. What opportunities does this present, and what does the BRI initiative mean to you, to Manchester and to the North of England more broadly?”

When president Xi visited Manchester, there was real interest from senior leadership around the UK’s vision of delivering a Northern Powerhouse which focused on rebalancing the economic. The Northern Powerhouse concept resonates well in China as there has been similar economic growth and conglomeration of city regions across China in recent years with the rollout of large scale infrastructure, particularly high-speed rail. There are many synergies between the development of Northern Powerhouse and China’s economic development resulting in a huge amount of buy in to the vision from Chinese senior leadership.

In relation to the Belt and Road there is global recognition of its strategic significance. As progress continues to be made during the golden era of UK-China relations, strengthening the links between the Belt and Road and the Northern Powerhouse could be an extremely important component of the region’s ongoing ambitions to strengthen its international ambition.

 There’s a lot that can be learned from looking towards China and how Greater Manchester to the mainland for learning and best practice as it continues to leapfrog technologies could bring tremendous opportunities.

The relationship however needs to be founded upon an approach of partnership, of building understanding and trust. The biggest challenges for both the West and East are is bridging that understanding. This can be achieved through improving economic collaboration between Western and Chinese businesses, or through cultural exhibitions and collaboration that draw the West and the East closer.

“Going forward, how does Manchester China Forum see itself evolving over the next 5 or 10 years period in terms of engagement and key priorities?”

 MCF will continue to focus on the short to mid-term goals, particularly around improving connectivity. As it stands Manchester airport has two routes into Greater China, one into Hong Kong and one into Beijing. Compared to the connectivity into the North American market with over 14 routes, there is significant room for growth and connectivity into a region with a population well over 3x the size of North America.

Manchester China Forum will continue to focus on nurturing strategic partnerships economically, welcoming further inward investment across a range of sectors but also more importantly aligning the mayor’s aspirations such as creating a digital economy, and creating a greener city, with president Xi’s own priorities. This will allow for both regions to identify opportunities for collaboration and to bring industry and academic partners together to drive these forwards.

Manchester has had a lot of success in piloting new innovative technologies, being the first city outside of Asia to trial Mobike.  Manchester continuously looks to China for sources of innovation, from autonomous vehicle technology to AI. T internationally for partnerships and Manchester China Forum will continue to ensure that China remains very much at the forefront of that thinking.

Click here to listen to the whole podcast.

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